Monday, May 12, 2008

Point of Reference

Ezra kindly pointed out that my last post sounded like I'd died. If any of you have been maintaining a vigil on my behalf, you have my thanks and reprieve. I am in fact, so to speak, resurrected.

In fact, I'm one of the last people not to disappear. Most of the other ETA's have returned to the land & home of the free & brave, but we are pushing the envelope of sanity! Ellie, Zoe, Len, and Joe -- far from the madding crowd. Though whom we are tying to woo I don't know. Maybe it is an experiment in post-modern reason. I feel like leaving therefore I should stay. Curse you, emotional tyranny!

But at this point we are the stayers. We have stayed. And so I bear that mantle lightly as I go -- haunting Anna and Gwynne's vacant apartment with its excellent number of rooms for reading. Also Gwynne's Norton Anthology of Postmodern Fiction, which has many excellent read rooms.

We have been fortuitously supplied with the kawanest of kawans, Mariah, whose love of fish exceeds even the Malays. She has a proper Fulbright with a lab and everything . . . but still must rely on her rapidly developing Malaydar to figure out whose bullshit is hitting which fans. Bravo Mariah, ye defender of scientific integrity, ye champion of proper lab safety.

As for them wot is departed -- you have assumed the celebrity of America in our eyes at last. Graduate schools, burritos and other such extravagant joys are foreign exoticisms. I can't decide whether to protest your over rich pie or sail to America on a leaky freighter to have my own fat slice. Have Malaysia and its troubles become quaint in the hush of law and the cool of aesthetics?

It is certainly a hot, sleepy country. A contented country with absurdly violent dangers. The snakes and centipedes have gathered the malice abandoned by humans. The tigers and crocs claim whatever stores of efficiency the land contains. Even the mosquitoes have monopolized subtle infection and deceit. What place remains for human evil? No, Malaysia is primarily a country for mischief.

I too have grown mischievous -- more prone to slack and harbor small suspicions. But perhaps my heart arrived stained with a darker evil. If so, the jungle has claimed it. Certainly I struggled and continue to struggle. Certainly parts of this culture disgust me. But if so, I do not fear them; I feel they are that sophisticated sort of play Malays call belief.

Even my take of the American election, certainly the most jaded process in history, has become totally benign. And I wonder: can I ever thrive in the West so bemused and so drained of cynicism?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Long Sleep

Well, I'm in Penang trying to fill up the ten minutes I have remaining on the hour I bought at this internet cafe. It's 6 a.m.

I'm beginning to understand how my grandfather must have felt when he reverenced my grandmother. Despite treating her to all of the nastiness a cantankerous alcoholic can produce, he constantly praised her merits and emphasized his reliance on her. His catchphrase: "I believe in God, the U.S. Government, and my wife. But not in that order." I used to wonder why he didn't just do as she said, then, or maybe demonstrate some of that respect.

Well I think that men come to rely on their wives, because women - feminists be damned - have a broad generosity towards men, a seemingly endless gulf. Sure there are plenty of "enlightened" women out there who "refuse to be walked over." And of course many of them are right. But there are many good, strong women like my grandmother who saw that the truth of the matter was the unattractive field they married could yield a rich crop, if believed in hard enough.

That is one interpretation of the closing episode of "The Grapes of Wrath." Steinbeck's least endearing character, Rose of Sharon, suddenly blossoms with the mantle of motherhood expressed in as archetypal a scene as I've ever pictured. She ceases to be a girl not with marriage, nor journeying, nor child-birthing, nor working; any of which would be singular moments in male life. Instead Steinbeck (granted, a male author) allows her to blossom through selflessness.

Now, maybe it's chauvenistic and idyllic, but what I think it clearly expresses is what my grandfather, and assumedly Steinbeck, viewed as female nature. It is how men view women. Women are the hope of men. They are the tangible evidence of religious belief, ala Joyce's Portrait of the Artist. Stephen Daedelus redirects his religious fervor into female love, and the consequent guilt drives him back again and again into the fervor-sex cycle. Freud conceptualized it as eros and thanatos - the sex drive and the death drive, the only two. And for men, both of these drives involve women. So do the sixteen year olds have it right? Are women really the reason for living?

Now scientists have postulated that, in humans, evolution itself depends upon not only random mutation and selective retention, but also the conscious decision to choose one mate over another. This decision may take into account many factors to which physiology is blind, including abstract moral and social constructions. It is a process that is structurally generative - a little perpetual engine - in which social / cultural forms are developed and reinforced just as a result of their own process of selection. So from the very beginning, virtual reality existed in tandem with physical reality. The eventual paramountcy of virtual forms and economies was predicted all those years ago when the first cave man admired his mate enough to exaggerate her qualitites to himself.

And now I understand because Zoe believes in me from love, rather than evidence. She has faith in me - a position that she most significantly occupies because unlike my father or mother, she had a choice in specifying me. So maybe what my grandfather failed to express was that the love he experienced from my grandmother - that was his god. I've always wondered: if God is so wonderful and we so weak, why does he need us to constantly lift him up, exalt him, etc.? Why doesn't he/she/it exalt human beings, particularly those poor who shall inherit it all anyhow?

Whatever feminists may claim, most women are still mysterious, powerful, magically charged creatures whose roles include instilling purpose in men. And men still live for them, and they till die for them and at bottom nothing else.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Whose politics are more screwy?



Thursday, March 6, 2008

Tourist for a Day

This week Alex, my step-cousin from San Francisco, and her boyfriend Tom paid us a visit on their way to Vietnam. We've been having a great time, and we were extremely hesitant to leave them to catch our flight to Bangkok.

We met them in Kuala Terengganu and then headed to Kuala Berang to spend the night with friends there. The next morning we chartered a boat to take us across Tasik Kenyir, the largest lake in Southeast Asia, which is surrounded by virgin rainforest. In fact, it is one entry point for Taman Negara, the national preserve in the center of the country that is home to the oldest rainforest in the world. We stayed in a chalet on an island and rented kayaks to explore the lake. We followed the sound of falling water to the mouth of a small waterfall, which we climbed and followed to its source in the jungle. We didn't want to get our cameras wet, but I can say it was one of the most edenic places I have ever been.

Today we have some downtime while we wait for a bus to take us to the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. We're in a small town that is the embarkation point for boats to the Perhentian Islands, where we spent the past couple of days. The seas are very rough during monsoon season, so our rides out and back from the island were extremely difficult . . . the waves pounded the hull of our speedboat so that it was like being paddled for 30 minutes. Every time the captain mistimed a wave, the bow plunged into the trough of the next wave, completely drenching us. But we managed to hang on and ended up having a fantastic stay snorkeling the reefs. Even though the storm stirred up the water, reducing visibility to 5 meters, we were able to spot two sharks, a giant ray, and three or four sea turtles.

Tomorrow we will fly to Bangkok and then figure out how to get to our friend Jon, one of the researchers from this summer, who is volunteering at an orphanage in the mountains. From his place, we plan to trek through the jungle via elephant and then head upcountry to Chiang Mai. Then school holiday will end, and it's back to school again.

School meaning IMTIAZ Dungun, which as it turns out is much less restrictive than I at first believed. It is a conservative Islamic religious school where all students memorize the entire Qu'ran, spending four hours per day doing nothing else. Nevertheless, I have found that many of the strictures on teaching style have come not from basic fundamentalism, but from severe disorganization and a poverty of creative thinking. We had a meeting consisting of the principal, the heads of the languages, the ustaz (religious teachers), and myself. They had asked me to present my thoughts about how to improve language usage at the school. I expected a nod and a placating remark . . . then for business to continue as usual. But what happened instead is that that instantly adopted my proposal, just as it is, and turned it into the "Comprehensive Language Reinforcement Program," fully funded and launched a week later. This is extremely significant because it grants me de facto license to liberalize the English language instruction at the school, which includes Maths and Sciences, too.

Some of my programs are directly contrary to the conservatism of the status quo, but they have been endorsed enthusiastically by all - even the ustaz. I presented my case to them as a dilemma, asking for their help: "I know that Islam is actually a progressive religion, because everyone has told me just that, but I don't know enough about the Qu'ran to know the best ways to accomplish these goals for our students. Would you help me design programs that will accomplish our mutual goals while adhering to Islamic rules?"

It turns out, as I figured, that to do so would be impossible. You can't reconcile liberalism with Islam any more than you can reconcile homosexuality and the Bible. They are categorically opposed. Instead, I was simply granted exceptional status on the premise that Islam encourages "educational excellence," so many of the normal rules do not apply during English-education. The end result? American films (good ones . . . not the crap they get on T.V.); drama class where girls are allowed to act on stage with boys, so long as they do not touch; lectures on American politics and culture; co-ed field trips; and a whole host of similarly "sensitive" programs. Most important of all, we are developing a teacher training program that will attempt to shift the textbook/exam-oriented education at the school up the long slope towards the critical-thinking, collaborative, and participatory ethic that characterizes a good American education. That's huge. It means that our students will be less likely to adopt wholesale the beliefs and prejudices of their culture in favor of a reasoned examination of the facts. And I believe that is the surest (if longest) route to peace.

The creation of this program was a perfect example of how things happen here. One person called it Muslim "hypocrisy", but I don't think that's quite it. I think that it's a religious-secular pull more pronounced than that of Christianity in America, because Islam assigns itself a more directly oppositional role than Christianity, whose foundational text is a work of literature - lending itself to interpretation and study. From what I can tell so far, Al Qu'ran is a work of absolutist philosophy, lending itself to transmission and memorization but very little debate. The result is that on a pragmatic level people simply de-emphasize the less tasty parts, saying, "Well, I'm only a simple Muslim. I don't understand the entire Qu'ran." It's a point system. The biggest rules matter to everyone, while the littlest matter to almost no one. It's sort of like the way Christians gloss over those parts of the bible that call for separation of sexes in church - not because they believe less, nor because the language is unclear, but because they have learned to think according to the spirit of their holy text rather than its letter. It's just that in Muslim countries people who do so still feel ambiguous about it - like they aren't being "good" muslims. But I predict that will change, and their religion will be richer for it once it learns to embrace a healthy, complimentary role for secular thought.

So things are exciting - if demanding. My health has still been problematic, though the worst is over. The terrible rash that broke out over my entire body is, it seems, kaput. After three months of maddening itch, the itch is over. Our intestinal tracts have adjusted to local water. We haven't got the flu. Now all that's left is for our immune systems to figure out how to kill whatever bacteria turns every little cut and mosquito bite into a boilsome bloody pus fountain. Last count: 7 boils and 1 carbuncle for me, 3 boils for Zoe.

Also, our kitty is well and good. He is staying at "auntie" CK's house with 15 other cats. I'm sure he's having the time of his life.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Zoe and I have been stationed in Dungun, Terengganu. It is a town whose paucity of excitement matches its name. Dungun. To say it right, you have to attempt to say it derogatorily: Doong-oon. It's like a mythical sword, a disease of the feet, or an Australian video game. Dungun down under. Dungun glowed brightly as the goblins approached.

The Dungun between my toes has spread to the balls of my feet.

How fitting, then, that in Dungun I should become infected with boils. At least they aren't carbuncles yet.

There's an awful lot of Islam happening . . . which is fine, of course, seeing as this isn't my country . . . and if it were, I'd likely appreciate all of the Islam all the time. It seems to make the people happier than they would be otherwise. It's just that I'd be happier if there was somewhere I could go for a cheap, cold beer on the beach.

But on the whole, I find Islam in Malaysia to be a benevolent, if somewhat overly serious, religion. In my personal opinion, it hasn't got much to offer that other religions don't offer. It also suffers from the same habits of unreason that seem to fester around other religions (i.e. stubbornly trying to use science to prove some part of the Qu'ran valid, despite insisting that evolution didn't happen because the Qu'ran has more authority than science).

In fact, it seems to me that the greatest function a religion could have would be to teach someone of a different faith that their own cherised ideas aren't all that unique or significant. At best, religion is a personal conduit for emotion and meaning. At worst, it's just one more tool to be mean and petty.

Much more troublesome is the food. The New York Times taught me the word for myself this week: foodie. I am a foodie. And the food here just doesn't quite fulfill my requirements. It's excellent (yes sir I've tried the nasi), but there isn't enough variety to really keep my palate interested. There is a fantastic night market: fantastic because it offers the best versions of the same old. And since most western ingredients are unheard of in Dungun, Terengganu, I'm left incapacitated to supply my own epicurian lifestyle. And so for my stomach, this is indeed a dungeon. I am left boiling noodles in MSG water.

This is what I missed most about America when I lived in France. Even haute-cuisine wears a bit thin when you're longing for the cournicopia of ethnic America. Oh Greeks! Oh Italians! Oh salad making people of the world!

Despite all this, life here is rather agreeable. It's quiet, safe, cheap, and there's time to read and write. Zoe and I spend time together.

In the meantime, I'm waiting for those witticisms or culturally induced epiphanies that will make this trip pay intellectual dividends. At least the novel goes along.

Next week: Alex & Tom, luxury, drinks, and elephants in Thailand. In the meantime, I'll be bringing the boils to a head and trying to stay well fed.

Friday, January 18, 2008


We have been in Malaysia for almost two weeks now, which due to my incredibly inefficient online habits has been long enough to forget most of the quirky anecdotes I could have posted. But them who know say I should blog while here, so to spite my track record with these projects, I'll try. And I'll try to post relatively often. Then again, maybe having some time between events and their recounting makes them less painfully detail laden for the hearer, or more coherent, or something. Probably it biases them in favor of the writer, as if a journal weren't biased enough.

Well the big news at this point is that the horrible rash that has covered my entire body has really cleared up a lot. I had a nasty case of pityriasis rosea; the only treatment seems to be to get sun and apply topical analgesics to get some sleep. I've been doing both, and hopefully have it kicked. Luckily it hasn't been as hot as when we were here in July, but it has been hot enough for little strips of hell to form from walking. The scratching has to annoy Zoe, so I'm trying not to scratch.

The rash comes at an otherwise auspicious time. We all got paid right away, celebrated Zoe's birthday, and became mostly fast friends. The Terengganu State Government, which is responsible for the bulk of this program, has treated us as honored guests. The hotel is comfortable. It has a fantastic view of the river. All is fine.

I am at peace. Some of us aren't, but I certainly am. Having Zoe makes all the difference, I think.

There is a tremendous temporal find in front of us, a piece of time so large that even I can spot it. Though I have no feeling about how long it will be, I have tried to internalize it as much as possible. There hasn't been a television in my life for years, but even those distractions that remain will largely dissolve, especially when leaving Kuala Terengganu for remoter destinations. No car. No friends, at least at first. No paperwork. No family. Nothing but observation and Zoe.

I am unafraid. This is my Innisfree.